Three Texas churches damaged in Hurricane Harvey sue federal agency over refusal to provide relief for places of worship

ReutersA condominium complex reduced to rubble by Hurricane Hervey in Rockport.

Three Texas churches severely damaged in Hurricane Harvey are suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over what they say is its policy of refusing to provide disaster relief to places of worship because of their religious status.

In a complaint filed on Monday in the federal court in Houston, the churches said that while they would like to apply for aid, it would be 'futile' because FEMA's public assistance programme 'categorically' excludes their claims, violating their constitutional right to exercise their religion freely.

The churches said that FEMA's ban on providing relief where at least half a building's space is used for religious purposes - a policy also enforced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 - contradicts a recent US Supreme Court decision making it easier for religious groups to gain public aid.

That decision which came on 26 June, known as Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc v. Comer, meant that US states must sometimes provide such aid even if their constitutions explicitly ban such funding.

Becket, a nonprofit organisation that represents the churches and advocates religious freedoms, said the same principle should apply to federal FEMA relief for Harvey victims.

'States and the federal government are different, but the First Amendment applies the same to both,' said Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer for Becket. He told Reuters: 'The principle is that governments can't discriminate on the basis of religious status, and that is unapologetically what FEMA is doing here.'

He added that the three churches 'need emergency repair, now.'

The Texas churches that have sued are the Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, which lost its roof and steeple and suffered other structural damage, the Harvest Family Church in Cypress and Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, which were flooded.

A FEMA spokeswoman said in an email to Reuters that it would be inappropriate to discuss pending litigation.

'This may be the first case this court will hear regarding Hurricane Harvey disaster relief, but it is surely not the last,' the complaint said.

Additional reporting by Reuters.